Now onto the psychological spin related to RG3’s injury. Did Shanahan make the right call by keeping an obviously hobbled Griffin in the game? As a coach who has dealt with this issue at the collegiate level, part of me empathizes with Shanahan. I kind of feel bad for Shanahan as analysts and fans across the country crucify him for making what seemed to be the wrong decision. Others have said Shanahan should have put in rookie backup, Kirk Cousins. The same Cousins who contributed to an overtime loss in week five to the Falcons while throwing two interceptions late in the game. The same Cousins who threw a game winning touchdown against the Ravens in overtime in the game that Griffin initially hurt his knee. The same Cousins that led the Redskins to a win the following week against the Browns. I highlight Cousin’s ups and downs because they too had to factor into Shanahan’s decision that night. The question for Shanahan is simple: Do I play an injured Griffin who is struggling both with the run and passing game or do I put in Cousins? The question is simple; the answer is complex and contains multiple layers of decision making thoughts and feelings. The thoughts are more tangible and have been mulled over by anyone who has an interest in the situation. For example, people may assume Shanahan pondered, “I think an injured Griffin gives the team a better chance over a healthy Cousins” or “Griffin said on the sideline that he was healthy enough to help the team win; he was medically cleared from a team doctor during the game; and I should therefore leave him in the game.” These are just a small fraction of the thoughts that Shanahan has at his disposal. The feelings are something that cannot be accurately analyzed by the sport experts. Maybe Shanahan had a gut feeling that Griffin was going to be ok and triumphantly carry the team on this wounded knee. Maybe Shanahan had feelings spurred by visions of Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons scoring 25 third quarter points on a sprained ankle in the 1988 NBA Finals against the Lakers. Maybe Shanahan forgot that the Pistons lost that game. The point is that everyone, regardless of the decision, uses a combination of thoughts and feelings when making a choice. This past season at SwarthmoreCollege, I was on the winning end of a similar decision. I suggested we put one of our starting forwards into an early season game at the onset of overtime despite his poor performance throughout regulation. I trusted my gut feeling that he has the potential to score at any moment. As a result we won the game because of a goal he scored. Gut instinct is influenced by the multitude of past experiences. I felt that this proven goal scorer needed just one opportunity to win the game. I felt this because of my previous observations and interactions with him. Shanahan’s decision was different. I believe he was probably influenced by Griffin’s sideline comments that his knee was ok. I speculate that Shanahan’s decision was influenced by Griffin’s passion, the roar of the crowd, and the possible future emotions associated with potential playoff loss had he decided to bench Griffin.
As a coach or parent it is important to attempt to manage the in-the-moment emotion and make clear headed decisions that are right for the players and the team when injuries arise. Griffin has been spending the off season rehabbing injuries to his ACL and LCL. It is very easy as a coach or a parent who needs to be level headed in the decision making process to become influenced and overwhelmed by the lure of winning. It is easy to turn a blind eye to injuries that have potentially far reaching consequences. The recent buzz associated with concussions illustrates this point. Players and coaches are often caught in a catch-22. If a player admits that the injury is bad enough to require a benching, he/she runs the risk of being labeled “soft” and possibly losing a starting position, or losing the respect of teammates. If a coach demonstrates cautious discretion and sits a player who insists they are fine, the coach runs the risk of dealing with an irate player on the sideline, nasty phone calls from parents, and/or the entire team questioning his/her desire to win “at all costs.” My sophomore year at Millersville University created this exact situation. While playing Slippery Rock University in an important conference game, I collided heads with an opposing player. I never lost consciousness, but the vision in my right eye went blurry. After meeting with the trainer, she concluded I should not go back in the game. Shortly thereafter, my vision returned to normal and I was permitted to finish the game. Keep in mind this was in the mid 90’s when less was known about concussions and traumatic brain injuries. I was fortunate and avoided any permanent or long term consequences. But the whole experience was difficult. Being a younger player, I was still trying to prove my physical toughness and overall worth to the team. I would have lied about my vision had it not returned to normal. I would have lied because, like many athletes, I was egocentric and consumed with winning. I put too much stock into my reputation, the thought that I was hurting my chances to keep my starting position, and the possibility that being benched would hurt my team’s chances of winning. NFL players are no different. They compete with other alpha males who will do anything improve their standing on the team. Plus, they have the enormous pressure of their livelihoods and millions of dollars being on the line.
Shanahan risked the future of a player who was well on his way to becoming an elite QB in the NFL. Shanahan risked the future of the organization because of the massive investment made on this one player. But hindsight is always 20/20. Had the scenario unfolded differently and a wounded Griffin helped his team win, we might be praising Shanahan for his brilliant coaching decisions much as we did when he was coaching Elway to those Super Bowl victories. It is an interesting scenario for sports fans, analysis, coaches, and athletes to deliberate. I only scratched the surface in the preceding paragraphs. It is apparent there was a lot more that went into the finals decision to keep Griffin in the game. But I feel it is important for parents and coaches to work on the skills required to become a clear headed decision maker when it comes to sitting players with serious injuries